|Infusing goodness, beauty, and truth into our public discourse|
Issue No. 11
Apologies for the summer hiatus of this monthly missive!
Despite the lockdown, the summer was full, and I focused rather exclusively on finishing a proposal for my book on civil discourse in modern life.
And it seems that single-mindedness paid off! I’m thrilled to have signed my book deal with St. Martin’s Press, a top five publishing house, for my project entitled Against Politeness: How Politeness Failed America and why Civility Will Save it.
The title will change, and in response to some feedback from early reviewers, I may in the end be more gracious toward “politeness,” but the heart of the project remains the same: there is a vital distinction between politeness and civility that has serious implications for public life today. Politeness is a technique. Civility is a disposition. One can act politely while being deeply uncivil—think of any Bond villain, or Hannibal Lecter! Relatedly, one can be deeply civil while simultaneously being impolite: telling someone a hard truth, or even taking to the streets to peacefully assemble and protest—neither of these are polite, but they are deeply civil and essential to both our democracy and our free way of life.
The etymology of these two words gets at these distinctions, too. Politeness comes from the Latin root polire, which means “to smooth” or “to polish.” Politeness smooths over our differences instead of giving us a disposition that allows us to confront them head on.
Civility, by contrast, comes from the word civis, which means citizen. Civility is the conduct befitting a member of the civitas, or city.
If you’re interested in learning more and staying engaged with this project, please send me a note!
The Rebirth of American Civic Life?
In this quarter’s issue of National Affairs, I wrote a long reflection on Robert Putnam’s famous Bowling Alone. Published in 2000, and developed from an earlier 1995 academic article, Bowling Alone has so permeated American consciousness that many assume that Putnam’s description of American civic decline continues to hold true today. But the truth is much more nuanced—and, in some cases, more hopeful.
The fact is American civic life has constantly evolved, ebbing and flowing across the decades. When Tocqueville traversed America examining our norms, institutions, and culture, the national benevolent associations and temperance societies he encountered were relatively new developments. Today, we may not be joining Rotary Clubs as often, but we are joining together to solve problems and help our communities in other ways.
An Exciting Forthcoming Announcement
I am helping to launch a magazine that will be unveiled next month. The magazine will defend against the troubling illiberalism we see on the political left and the political right. It will elevate our discourse by articulating and arguing in favor of the tenets necessary for a free society and human flourishing. The magazine will revive a discussion of the sublime, recognizing that beauty—as well as goodness and truth—can have universal appeal and can unveil realities of the human condition.
I’m very excited for this new project. Stay tuned for an update, and ways to be involved!
And the Winner Is…
Thanks to all of you who joined this newsletter or shared it with friends to enter the book giveaway! This months’ winner is Mr. Andrew Zwerneman, Founder and President of the Cana Academy, an organization committed to the dissemination of high-quality humanities education. Mr. Zwerneman is the fortunate recipient of a historian and journalist Colin Woodard’s Union, a recent book on American mythmaking, signed by the author.
Congratulations, Mr. Zwerneman—and thank you to all the other new subscribers!
Readings Worth Your Time
· As a weapon in the hands of the restless poor. Speaking of high-quality humanities education, this remarkable essay from the Harper’s archive recounts the story of Earl Shorris, who piloted a program to teach great books to need-ridden youth in New York city. The program became the now-famous Clemente Course in the Humanities. From the essay:
“You’ve been cheated,” I said. “Rich people learn the humanities; you didn’t. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you. I think the humanities are one of the ways to become political, and I don’t mean political in the sense of voting in an election but in the broad sense.” I told them Thucydides’ definition of politics. “Rich people know politics in that sense. They know how to negotiate instead of using force. They know how to use politics to get along, to get power. It doesn’t mean that rich people are good and poor people are bad. It simply means that rich people know a more effective method for living in this society.
And my favorite story from the essay:
One evening, in the American history section, I was telling the students about Gordon Wood’s ideas in The Radicalism of the American Revolution. We were talking about the revolt by some intellectuals against classical learning at the turn of the eighteenth century, including Benjamin Franklin’s late-life change of heart, when Henry Jones raised his hand.
“If the Founders loved the humanities so much, how come they treated the natives so badly?”
I didn’t know how to answer this question. There were confounding explanations to offer about changing attitudes toward Native Americans, vaguely useful references to views of Rousseau and James Fenimore Cooper. For a moment I wondered if I should tell them about Heidegger’s Nazi past. Then I saw Abel Lomas’s raised hand at the far end of the table. “Mr. Lomas,” I said.
Abel said, “That’s what Aristotle means by incontinence, when you know what’s morally right but you don’t do it, because you’re overcome by your passions.”
The other students nodded. They were all inheritors of wounds caused by the incontinence of educated men; now they had an ally in Aristotle, who had given them a way to analyze the actions of their antagonists.
· Lost in Thought, A Review. This review is a perfect taste of a lovely new book out by Zina Hinz—a tutor at Great Books ground zero, St. John’s College—which make a refreshing case for the contemplative life in a frenetic world. Learning, says Hitz, is “how finite beings reach for “the whole of everything.” This review and the book itself are a lovely reprieve from the quotidian grind.
What I’ve Been Doing
A Rare Books and Art Exhibition. I’ve spent the last several weeks preparing a rare books and art exhibition, which opened last evening, October 2nd! This Forbes last week offers an excellent description of the exhibit. Entitled Some Books Make Us Free, the exhibit aims to bring to life the themes of rare books and original documents of political philosophy and human freedom so that they can inform our conversation about fraught but important subjects today—such as protests, racial injustice, and co-existing amid deep difference. The exhibit was also covered here in the Indianapolis Recorder, one of the oldest surviving African American newspapers, and one of our community partners. Please consider making a donation to support the event here!
The Pandemic and Suicide. For USA Today, I explored early data on how the lockdown and the pandemic has affected Americans’ mental health. Like so many other areas of American life, the pandemic didn’t cause a mental health crisis, but it did make pre-existing problems worse. The good news is that we can all be part of the solution: at a time when so many of our interactions are mediated by distance and technology, it’s essential that we find ways to humanize one another. The daily efforts we make to ensure others feel valued can save lives.
Education innovation amid COVID 19, Washington Examiner Magazine. Necessity breeds innovation, as the saying goes. As schools shut down this past spring in response to the pandemic, I looked at and reported on trends about how families and institution were poised to adapt. A classical-books-based standardized tests was among the first to be administered online when the ACT / SAT were canceled. An “AirBnb for education” matched subject matter experts with curious students so learning could continue during school closure. And a micro school created an online offering to help harried parents support their children’s learning despite the physical closure of schools. Education is the latest in a long line of examples that show that the innovation in the American civic tradition is alive and well.
A Bright Spot for Health Care, City Journal. It was a pleasure to speak with a number of individuals from the “free market medical movement” in America. These are medical practitioners and professionals committed to improving health care in our nation piece by piece through free market principles. Their message is especially timely as institutions are looking for way to trim costs as a result of the pandemic-induced economic downturn. Read more here.
Is it time for a Fourth Founding?For USA Today, I reflected on a new report put out by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, which offers a narrative of American history punctuated by three “foundings,” each a watershed era that ushered in greater equity and justice. Since it’s clear we are still not living up to our founding ideals of life, liberty and equal justice under the law, is it time to usher in a renewed commitment to our founding ideals in the form of a Fourth Founding? It reminds me of that fabulous Samuel Huntington line, that says America is a disappointment—but can only be a disappointment because it is a hope. (read to the end of the newsletter to get the full quote!) Read the full essay here.
Congratulations again to Mr. Andrew Zwerneman for winning Colin Woodard’s Union—and a shout out to the last book giveaway winner, Ron Manners from Western Australia, who won a copy of Dr. James Hankin’s extraordinary Virtue Politics!